The Forbidden Game
12. Heroin and Cannabis
WHILE THE LEAGUE HAD BEEN WRESTLING WITH THE PROBLEM OF
controlling the international drug traffic, its member States had been going
their individual ways, some paying little attention to the League's
requests. The nation which came closest to carrying out the League's
recommendations was, ironically, not a member: the United States;
and the consequences of the methods it chose to adopt to stamp
out drug-taking were to prove even more disastrous, though on
a smaller scale, than Prohibition.
The Harrison Act
The Harrison Narcotics Act, passed in 1914, was chiefly designed
to restrict the use of opium and its derivatives to medical purposes,
the doctor being permitted to prescribe them 'in the course of
his professional practice only'. But the limits of what would
constitute professional practice were left undefined. Was the
doctor allowed to prescribe heroin to addictsthe maintenance
dose, as it came to be known? Or did this fall outside his professional
competence? The law enforcement officers took the view that it
was no part of the profession's duty to indulge the addict with
his drugs. Doctors who continued to provide patients with the
maintenance dose found themselves liable to be arrestedwhich,
even if they were not jailed, meant that they would face professional
ruin. So the addictas American Medicine commented soon
after the Act came into effectis 'deprived of the medical care
he urgently needs; open, above-board sources from which he formerly
obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to
the underworld where he can get his drug'. The underworld had
no difficulty in supplying him. By the end of the First World
War, an investigating committee found, the problem of addiction
was more serious than ever in American cities. The illicit traffic
in opiates had increased until it just about equalled the legal
traffic, and the number of addicts had risen to around a million.
Predictably, the committee recommended tougher laws, and tougher
enforcement: and in 1924 an Act was passed prohibiting the importation
of herointhis being the policy the United States delegates
were trying to persuade the League of Nations Opium Conference
to accept. The effect was rapid, and striking. Hitherto the profession
had made little distinction between morphine and heroin addicts,
the general assumption being that though heroin was the more addictive,
the two drugs were not significantly different in their effects.
Butaccording to Edward Brecher in his survey of the period
in Licit and Illicit Drugshardly had the law been changed
than morphine, though easier and cheaper to get, almost disappeared
from the black market. So far from stopping the traffic, the Illinois
Medical Journal complained in June 1926, the 'well-meaning
blunderers' who had passed the Act had ensured that those who
dealt in heroin could now 'make double the money from the poor
unfortunates upon whom they prey'. All that the United States
Government was doing was ensuring the prosperity of the bootleggers
of narcotics, in the same way as they had ensured the prosperity
of the bootleggers of alcohol, at enormous cost to the nation.
The Rolleston Committee
What would have happenedit was often askedif the American
Government, instead of denying addicts their maintenance dose,
had allowed them to have it on prescription? The easiest comparison
was with Britain, which had had a similar problem with addiction
to opiates in the early part of the century, arising out of ill-advised
prescribing habits and the boom in patent medicines; and which
had also passed a law, the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, designed
to bring them under control. When the issue came up whether the
maintenance dose should be allowed, however, the decision lay
not with the law officers, as in America, but with the Ministry
of Health. The Ministry decided to appoint a committee, under
Sir Humphrey Rolleston, to advise on it; and the committee sent
one of its members, Dr. Harry Campbell, to the United States to
observe how the Harrison law was working.
As a consequence of the law, Dr. Campbell reported,
a vast clandestine commerce has grown up in that country. The
small bulk of these drugs renders the evasion of the law comparatively
easy, and the country is overrun by an army of peddlers who extort
exorbitant prices from their helpless victims. It appears that
not only has the Harrison law failed to diminish the number of
drug-takerssome contend, indeed, that it has actually worsened
it; for without curtailing the supply of the drug it has sent
the price up tenfold, and this has had the effect of impoverishing
the poorer class of addicts and reducing them to a condition of
such abject misery as to render them incapable of gaining an honest
The Rolleston Committee was exclusively medical in its composition.
One of the most cherished tenets of the medical profession was
that the doctor had a right to prescribe whatever he thought suitable
for his patients, with or without the State's sanction. Dr. Campbell
had given the Committee just the kind of evidence they needed
to justify the continuance of this policy. They recommended that
doctors should be allowed to prescribe heroin not simply in the
course of treatment, but also to the patient who, 'while capable
of leading a useful and fairly normal life as long as he takes
a certain non-progressive quantity, usually small, of the drug
of addiction, ceases to be able to do so when the regular allowance
is withdrawn'. The medical profession in Britain having more prestige
and more influence than the American, the recommendation was accepted.
As a result, though there was always a black market in the opiates
between the wars, it remained very small. The addict who could
get his heroin for a few pence on prescription was not going to
pay ten times as much to a peddler.
In the United States, heroin addiction grew progressively more
serious; for reasons given in 1936 by August Vollmer, who had
been Chief of Police in Berkeley, California, and subsequently
a Professor of Police Administration in Chicago:
Stringent laws, spectacular police drives, vigorous prosecution
and imprisonment of addicts and peddlers have proved not only
useless and enormously expensive as means of correcting this evil,
but they are also unjustifiably and unbelievably cruel in their
application to the unfortunate drug victims. Repression has driven
this vice underground and produced the narcotic smugglers and
supply agents, who have grown wealthy out of this evil practice
and who, by devious methods, have stimulated traffic in drugs.
Finally, and not the least of the evils associated with repression,
the helpless addict has been forced to resort to crime in order
to get money for the drug.
Drug addiction, Vollmer went on to argue, was not a police problem'it
never has been and never can be solved by policemen'; it was a
medical problem. Instead of penal sanctions, 'there should be
intelligent treatment of the incurables in outpatient clinics,
hospitalization of those not too far gone to respond to therapeutic
measures, and application of the prophylactic principles which
medicine applies to all scourges of mankind'.
Marihuana: Harry Anslinger
Vollmer was a respected figurehe was a former President of
the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But how little
attention was paid to his opinions could be gauged from the fact
that the following year, Congress passed a law bringing yet another
drug under federal prohibition: Indian hemp.
Before 1900, hemp had hardly rated as a drug in the United States.
This was not because of any lack of availability; in the South,
it had long been one of the main cash cropsgrown by, among
others, George Washington, and encouraged by later administrators,
chiefly to provide fibres. It was no more regarded as a plant
drug than the morning gloryat least by the whites; they preferred
their tobacco and alcohol. Only the Southern black slaves took
it; as Richard Burton, who liked to compare different types of
hemp as other men like to compare different wines, observed when
he visited the region. He was interested to discover that 'few
of their owners had ever heard of it'. So little were its narcotic
properties known, let alone worried about, that S. S. Boyce's
treatise on hemp, published in New York in 1900, contained no
reference to them; and that same year the U.S. Department of Agriculture
announced that it had decided to import experimental quantities
of 'superior varieties of hemp seed' from the East, for experiments
to see how they would grow in America.
Drugs made from hemp were used to a small extent in medicines;
and the Department, worried by the growing cost of imported drugs,
and with a view to making the United States self-sufficient in
her requirements, also embarked on a systematic survey over the
next few years to find how much was needed of hemp and other plant
drugs, and how and where they could best be grown. Experimental
farms were established, at which tests could be made; and hemp
was found to do very well in the Eastern and upper Southern States.
Farms to produce it commercially were accordingly started in Pennsylvania,
Virginia, and South Carolina. During the war, farmers were encouraged
to produce still more, until they almost fulfilled the country's
entire requirements; a feat which was held to be greatly to their
credit by Henry Fuller in his survey of American drugs, published
During the 1920s, however, marihuanaas it came to be described
when taken for non-medical purposesbegan to acquire a sinister
reputation; partly owing to the stories coming out of Egypt, where
hashish was still getting blamed for the addiction rate; partly
because it began to spread north into States of the Union where
it had not been known before. Some of them banned it; and at the
time the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was set up under the wing
of the Treasury Department in Washington in 1930, there was a
move to get marihuana banned throughout the country. The Treasury
was unimpressed. 'A great deal of public interest has been aroused
by newspaper articles,' its report claimed in 1931, 'appearing
from time to time on the evils of the abuse of marihuana, or Indian
hemp. This publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and
lends color to the inference that there is an alarming spread
of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in
such use may not have been inordinately large.'
The Chief of the new Narcotics Bureau, however, did not share
the Treasury's view. Harry Anslinger had been Assistant Commissioner
of Prohibition, and was understandably anxious to wipe out the
memory of his failure to make it work. He was youngstill in
his thirtiesambitious; and filled with a deep repugnance for
drugs dating back, by his own account, to an episode in his childhood.
He had been born in Pennsylvania, near a township in which one
adult out of ten was reputed to be an opium addict; and as a twelve-year-old,
he heard a woman screaming in agony for the drug, a sound he never
forgot. He had come to feel the same horror of marihuana.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, however, was originally drawn
into the campaign against marihuana less by Anslinger's antipathy
to the drug than for administrative simplicity. It had becomeobvious that narcotics could not be adequately controlled so long
as each State had a different set of regulations, and a national
Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws had been considering
how best to unify them. In 1932 they put forward a draft narcotics
law which, it was hoped, all States would introduce, imposing
prohibition except for medical purposes. At this stage, the decision
whether or not to classify hemp as a narcotic within the meaning
of the Act was left optional. Anslinger, regarding this as unsatisfactory,
determined to arouse public opinion to the marihuana menace. His
Bureau therefore prepared a brochure in which it was claimed that,
'those who are accustomed to habitual use of the drug are said
eventually to develop a delirious rage after its administration
during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible, and
prone to commit violent crimes'; and that prolonged use was 'said
to produce mental deterioration'.
'Said to' was a favourite Bureau phrase when there was no evidence
who had done the saying. Anslinger had other devices, too, to
rouse fear of marihuana. It had dropped out of general medical
usage, he claimed, because its effects were too unpredictable.
This was true; doctors did not find it easy to prescribe the appropriate
dosage, because individual reactions were so varied. But Anslinger's
interpretation of 'unpredictability' was his own. A patient, he
explained, might not react at all; but he might 'go berserk'.
And the young were particularly at risk; much of the prevailing
crime, vice and gang warfare were due to the drug.
The Bureau's report for 1933 promised a propaganda campaign against
marihuana. For a while, it did not 'take'; The Reader's Guide
to Periodical Literature, Brecher was later to find, listed
no article on the subject in the ten years 1925-35itself an
indication of how little alarm the drug had been causing. Then,
the flow began; and most of the articles either acknowledged the
help of the Bureau, or showed internal evidence of having accepted
it. Anslinger himself gave network radio broadcasts to arouse,
as he put it, 'an intelligent and sympathetic public interest,
helpful to the administration of the narcotic laws'. They emphasised
marihuana's close relationship with hashish, and attributed to
it 'a growing list of crimes, including murder'.
Anslinger's main aim was to shake Congress into action; and in
this he succeeded. When in 1937 the Treasury introduced a Federal
Marihuana Bill, putting the drug into the same category as the
narcotics controlled by the Harrison Act, Congressmen were so
little concerned to dispute the Bureau brief that the only serious
opposition came from representatives of the bird seed industry.
They managed, just in time, to put over their case that hemp seed,
whatever it might do to humans, did only good to birds, upon whom
it had no observable narcotic effects, and whose healthand
plumagesuffered without it.
Having committed himself to prohibition of marihuana, Anslinger
was aware he would need to justify himself by making a better
job of enforcement than he had been able to do with either alcohol
or heroin. The Bureau's campaign through the press intensified.
In the same monthJulythat the Act went through, an article
by Anslinger appeared in the American Magazine purporting
to recount some of the crimes committed under the influence of
marihuana, which bore an interesting resemblance to those which
had been described to an Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, including
a murder in Florida:
When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering
about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his
father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in
a daze.... He had no recollection of having committed the multiple
crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet
young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason.
The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which
youthful friends called 'muggle' a childish name for marihuana.
Anslinger omitted to provide any evidence that the smoking of
muggle had been in any way responsible for the crime; but with
his authority for it, the incident was to be used again and again,
in later articles, by journalists who had found it among the files.
In one respect, the campaign was a little too successful for Anslinger's
peace of mind. He had secured a fervent supporter in Earle Albert
Rowell, a hot-gospeller, who had been touring America lecturing
audiences on marihuana's effects. The drug, according to Rowell's
1 Destroys willpower, making a jellyfish of the user. He cannot
2 Eliminates the line between right and wrong...
3 Above all, causes crime, fills the victim with an irrepressible
urge to violence.
4 Incites to revolting immoralities, including rape and murder.
5 Causes many accidents, both industrial and automobile.
6 Ruins careers for ever.
7 Causes insanity as its speciality.
8 Either in self-defence or as a means of revenue, users make
smokers of others, thus perpetuating evil.
The italicised part of Rowell's creed was an embarrassment to
the Narcotics Bureau, because it related to another of Rowell's
beliefs; that in order to stamp out marihuana, it would be necessary
also to ban tobacco, because smoking cigarettes led young people
on to smoking marihuana. 'Slowly, insidiously', Rowell claimed,
for over three hundred years, Lady Nicotine was setting the stage
for a grand climax. The long years of tobacco-using were but an
introduction and training for marihuana use. Tobacco which was
first smoked in a pipe, then as a cigar, and at last as a cigarette,
demanded more and more of itself until its supposed pleasures
palled, and some of the tobacco victims looked about for something
stronger. Tobacco was no longer potent enough.
It was no part of Anslinger's strategy to add to his difficulties
with a campaign against tobacco: Rowell was repudiated.
Marihuana was now officially a 'black' or 'hard' drug. What this
was going to mean was forecast by Dr. Henry Smith Williams in
With the aid of newspaper propaganda already started, an interest
will be created in the alleged allurements of marihuana smoking;
and the army of inspectors sent out to explore the millions of
fields in which the weed may be grown need only apply, with slight
modifications, the methods learned in the conduct of the narcotics
racket, in order to develop a marihuana industry that could eclipse
the billion dollar illicit narcotics racket of today. Racketeers
... should have no difficulty at all in developing a five billion
dollar racket with marihuanaprovided only that the press can
be induced to stimulate curiosity by giving the drug publicity.
And the press, fed with more horror stories by Anslinger, duly
did its worst.
The La Guardia Report
Up to this point, there had been no attempt seriously to investigate
the effects of marihuana in the United States. But when the Mayor
of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, was urged to initiate a campaign
against the drug, he recalled that many years before he had been
impressed by a report on the subject by an army board in Panama,
'which had emphasised the relative harmlessness of the drug and
the fact that it played a very little role, if any, in problems
of delinquency and crime in the Canal Zone'. In 1939, with the
help of the New York Academy of Medicine, La Guardia set up a
committee consisting of twenty-eight doctors, pharmacologists,
psychiatrists and sociologists, who were allowed the time and
the facilities to do what half a century earlier the Indian Hemp
Drugs Commission, for all its thoroughness, had not attempted:
scientific tests of the drug, in controlled conditions.
The outcome of the enquiry was remarkably similar to that of its
predecessors. The behaviour of marihuana smokersthe Chairman
of the Committee, Dr. George B. Wallace, wrote in his summary
of its conclusionswas ordinarily 'of a friendly, sociable character.
Aggressiveness and belligerency are not commonly seen.' No direct
relation had been found between marihuana and crimes of violence.
There was no evidence that it was an aphrodisiac. Smoking could
be stopped without any resulting mental or physical distress comparable
with withdrawal symptoms after opiates; and there was no sign
that smokers acquired tolerance of its effects, compelling them
to take more. On the contrary, an excessive dose reversed the
usually pleasant effects. 'Marihuana does not change the basic
personality structure of the individual. It lessens inhibitions
and this brings out what is latent in his thoughts and emotions,
but it does not evoke responses which would otherwise be totally
alien to him.' No mental or physical deterioration of a kind which
could be attributed to it had been diagnosed even among those
who had taken the drug for years. So far from its being a menace,
'the lessening of inhibitions and repression, the euphoric state,
the feeling of adequacy, the freer expression of thoughts and
ideas, and the increase in appetite for food brought about by
marihuana, suggest therapeutic possibilities'.
The American Medical Association reacted angrily to the implication
that it had failed to recognise cannabis's potential. 'Public
officials will do well to disregard this unscientific, uncritical
study', the AMA Journal urged on April 28th, 1948, 'and
continue to regard marihuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed'.
The damage, it feared, had already been doneto judge by the
account of some 'tearful parents' who had noticed a mental deterioration
in their son, 'evident even to their lay minds' and found he had
been smoking 'tea' (the then current slang); when taxed with it,
he had cited the committee's reportwhich he had read about
in a pop music magazine under the heading 'Light up! Report
finds "tea" a Good Kick!'as his justification.
Anslinger was of the same mind. The report's 'giddy sociology
and medical mumbo-jumbo', he was later to complain in one of his
autobiographies, 'put extra millions in the pockets of the hoods'.
Marihuana: the second phase
Following the report of the La Guardia Committee, voices were
heard periodically in the United States suggesting that even if
its research had not been perfect, the results at least confirmed
that there were no known serious hazards from marihuana to the
individual or to society. Would it not be as well, then, to give
up the apparently futile attempt to ban it, and to concentrate
instead on the campaign against heroin and the other hard drugs?
Anslinger found the proposal intolerable. To block it, he began
to advance a new argument, contradicting views he had himself
held earlier. In 1937 he had assured Congress that marihuana did
not lead on to hard drug addiction, because he wanted to prove
that marihuana addicts were, as he put it to Congress, 'an entirely
different class', who were made violent by the drug, rather than
by the need to find money to pay for it. They knew nothing of
heroin, he asserted, and 'did not go in that direction'. But by
1956, when new forms of drug control were being debated, Anslinger
realised that he could no longer rely on Congressmen accepting
his link between marihuana and violence, exploded by the La Guardia
findings. He would have to find some fresh reason for maintaining
prohibition of the drug. Marihuana, he now admitted, was not a
'controlling factor' in crime; the real danger was 'that marihuana,
if used over a long period, does lead to heroin addiction'. His
expert advice was accepted.
When it began to become obvious, later in the 1960s, that the
campaign to stamp out marihuana was not succeeding, and that the
habit was spreading rapidly throughout the country, particularly
among the youth, State legislatures displayed the by now reflex
action. They passed laws to intensify enforcement, and to increase
penalties. Edward Brecher has since listed them in his Licit
and Illicit Drugs, including:
Alabama: mandatory sentence for the possession of a marihuana
cigarette: five years. Second offence, up to forty years. No suspended
sentences or probation permitted.
Illinois: for first offence of selling marihuana, ten years to
Louisiana: mandatory sentence for possession, first offence, five
to fifteen years hard labour.
Missouri: life sentence for first offence of sale, second of possession.
Rhode Island: mandatory ten years for possession with intent to
And in Massachusetts anybody found in a place where marihuana
was kept, or in the company of anybody possessing it, could receive
a five-year sentence. At the same time, the campaign was intensified
on the federal level. In 1960 there had been 169 arrests in connection
with marihuana; in 1965 there were 7,000, and the following year,
The campaign was a humiliating failure, for two main reasons.
One was that it proved impossible to stop smuggling. The long
border with Mexico, in particular, was easily breachedoften
by the owners of the 80,000 cars which, by the late 1960s, were
passing into Mexico and back into California every weekend (at
one checkpoint there were eighteen lanes, which did not make for
secure customs enforcement). But the main reason was the same
as under Prohibition forty years earlier: that enforcement lacked
solid support from public opinion. The young were often on marihuana's
side; and parents were gradually learning to live with the knowledge
that their children were not going to be stopped from breaking
It was also becoming apparent that none of the terrible consequences
Anslinger had forecast were manifesting themselves Marihuana caused
no deaths, and no addiction of the kind which afflicted takers
of the opiates or of alcohol; nor were its takers more prone to
mania, to violence, or to crime than the rest of the community.
By the time President Nixon, whose views reflected Anslinger's,
set up his own enquirywhich he took care to 'load', appointing
nine of the thirteen members himself, and leaving them and the
public in no doubt as to what he expected of themthe campaign
against marihuana was disintegrating. 'There is increasing evidence,'
Dr. James Carey of the University of California told them, 'that
we are approaching a situation similar to that at the time when
the Volstead Act was repealed.' On the one hand, there were the
savage penalties; on the other, a breakdown of enforcement. The
police, though willing enough to make raids on hippy camps, did
not relish the idea of making sweeps through the massed ranks
of fans at pop festivals; still less, of raiding the homes of
the G.I.ssometimes officerswho had brought the habit back
with them from Vietnam.
Politicians, too, could no longer be so sure that a hard line
on drugs would win them electoral support. In some States, tacit
agreements were reached to leave University campuses to discipline
themselves over marihuana; fines for possession become nominal.
In the winter of 1972 the Consumers' Union pronounced 'marihuana
is here to stay. No conceivable law enforcement programme can
curb its availability', and called for a new Act to introduce
orderly controls on cultivation, production and distribution.
In 1973 Oregon took a tentative step towards legislation, by converting
possession of small quantities of marihuana into a 'violation'comparable
to a parking offencerather than a crime. And when the Shafer
Committee reported, to Nixon's disgust it recommended that possession
of small quantities of cannabis should cease to be a criminal
Britain and cannabis
It might have been expected that the British, aware of the good
fortune in escaping the consequences of the United States' heroin
policy, would have taken care not to ban cannabis themselves.
But the drug was rarely used socially in Britain, and as the plant
had continued to resist conversion into a standardised potion,
or pill, it had been falling out of medical use. When it was introduced
by the West Indian immigrants after the Second World War, it was
known only through the lingering legends of the Arabian nights,
and the Assassins. And for a time, it was allowed to circulate
in what became semi-ghettoes where the immigrants lived.
Around 1950, it began to spread out through much the same channels
as it had in the United States, chiefly through musicians and
their fans; and stories about the way the drug was corrupting
the nation's youth began to appear in the newspapers. They were
loaded with menace: readers were reminded that cannabis was really
hashish, the drug of the Assassins, and told that it was being
pushed by coloured dope peddlers. Britain had no Narcotics Squad,
and no Harry Anslinger; but it had Dr. Donald McIntosh Johnson,
later to be Conservative M.P. for Carlisle, whose Indian Hemp:
a Social Menace sounded the alarm in 1952. In it he described
how the respectable 'Mr. A' had been slipped a 'Mickey Finn',
which had driven him into so manic a mental condition that he
had had to be certified, and incarcerated for a few days in a
mental hospital. The drug used, Dr. Johnson claimed, was cannabis;
and he went on to explain that it had also been responsible for
the outbreak of hysteria which had afflicted the citizens of the
Provencal town of Pont St. Esprit, not long before.
The Pont St. Esprit outbreak was soon traced to ergot poisoning;
but the explanation of 'Mr. A's' disorder did not come until several
years later, when Dr. Johnson revealed in an autobiography that
he was 'Mr. A' himself (thus qualifying, perhaps, as the only
man to have been elected an M.P. after having been certified).
He was unable to show that cannabis had been responsible. By then,
however, the combination of the press campaign and the propaganda
of the Society for the Study of Addiction (whose Hon. Secretary's
views were given in the introduction to Johnson's book; distinguishing
between drunkards and cannabis users, he claimed that 'alcoholism,
for all its attendant degradation, does not usually poison one's
nature; drug addiction does') had led the Government to determine
to ban sales of the drug. As the medical profession disclaimed
any desire to use it, it ceased to be available even on prescription.
What followed was a repetition of what had been happening in the
United States, though with the additional complication that the
police activity was initially directed against the West Indians.
A number of respectable citizens, who had taken cannabis all their
adult lives in much the same way as their white neighbours took
beer, found themselves given long prison sentences, coupled with
judicial homilies on their wickedness in corrupting British youth.
The effect the campaign had was greatly to increase the demand.
By driving it underground, the authorities succeeded in making
'pot' a secular cult, combining the attractions of a rebel conspiracy
against parental and civil authority, and a secret society. White
teenagers took to the drug in rapidly growing numbers, so that
by 1964 more whites than coloureds were being convicted of cannabisoffences.. Inevitably, the demand grew for tougher enforcement,
and higher penalties. But cabinet ministers or stockbrokers who
applauded the searches of a pop singer's suitcases by the Customs,
or his flat by the police, became less enthusiastic when they
found that most of the white malefactors were from the aristocracy
and the professional classesincluding their own sons and daughters.
This was an embarrassment, because by the Dangerous Drug Act of
1965, designed to implement United Nations' policy, penalties
had been raised. In theory, anybody found in possession of cannabis
could receive as long a sentence as a convicted murderer. In 1967
the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, sought a way out of the
difficulty by appointing a committee of enquiry into the whole
subject under Lady Wootton, the leading British authority in the
area where sociology, criminology and psychiatry overlap. Its
report, published in 1969, followed those of earlier enquiries.
There was nothing to suggest that cannabis was responsible for
aggressive social behaviour, or crime, or ill-health. Physically-speaking
it was 'very much less dangerous than the opiates, amphetamines,
and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol'. Nor was
there any evidence that cannabis-takers were led on to take heroin;
'it is the personality of the user, rather than the properties
of the drug, that is likely to cause progression to other drugs'.
James Callaghan, Jenkins' successor as Home Secretary, was no
more disposed than Nixon to accept the committee's verdict. He
excused himself from taking action by claimingas Nixon was
to dothat the committee had allowed itself to be bamboozled
by the cannabis lobby. But whatever the disagreements on the committee's
findings there was no disputing one of its assertions; that in
spite of campaigns to stamp it out, cannabis use was on the increase.
Doubtless encouraged by the report, the users continued to multiply,
as an investigation undertaken by the Sunday Telegraph,
revealed in 1972. Previously, the cannabis had entered the country
chiefly in small consignments, often amateurishly brought in.
But the demand had now put up the price to the point where it
attracted a smuggling network of the sophisticated kind hitherto
associated with the heroin traffic:
Ingenuity shown in disguising cannabis in freight is endless.
It has been found concealed in crates of foodstuff, the handles
of badminton racquets, padded ice-hockey gloves, sub-aqua air
bottles, surf boards, hippie beads, sculptured busts, contraceptives,
antiques, Moroccan pouffes and ornamental bricks.
Other expedients employed by the traffickers included the use
of radio-controlled model aircraft, launched from motor-boats
in the English Channel, andmost serious of allof the diplomatic
bags addressed to members of the Embassies of the poorer countries,
who had learned how they could enjoy high living in London with
no trouble, and rarely any risk. A senior member of the staff
of the Indian High Commission had been detected, the Sunday
Telegraph report claimed, smuggling 50,000 grains of cannabis
into Britain in a consignment of chutney.
Faced with such evidence, the reaction of the Customs was to boast
that larger quantities of cannabis were being intercepted. But
this, as Timothy Green explained in his book about international
smuggling, must be regarded as the measure of prohibition's failure.
No large scale smuggling operation could afford to lose more than
a small proportion of its consignmentsaround five per cent,
Green estimated. It followed that if more cannabis was being intercepted,
this could only mean that more was finding its way in. Only if
interceptions began to fall, should the Customs claim they
were succeeding. In much the same way, the rise in the number
of convictions, which the police used to justify themselvesfrom
around fifty in 1957 to over 10,000 in 1972could more sensibly
be regarded as a reflection of a great increase in drug taking.
The estimates of the number of cannabis users supplied to the
Wootton Committee in 1968 had ranged between 30,000 and 300,000.
The Sunday Telegraph's investigators came to the conclusion
that in 1972 'although the United Kingdom is in general a law-abiding
country, anything up to two millions of its citizens use the drug'.
If the authorities in Britain and the United States could not
suppress the use of cannabis by banning it, the chances of the
traffic in heroin, easier and vastly more profitable to smuggle,
being effectively stopped by prohibition were remote. The British,
realising this, held on to their policy of allowing doctors to
prescribe a maintenance dose; and it workedthough they had
some uneasy moments in the 1960s, when it was found that the number
of new cases of addiction, though negligible by American standards,
was rising with disconcerting rapidity. An investigation revealed
the reason; a handful of doctors were prescribing heroin so lavishly
that they were feeding the small black market in the drug. There
had always been the risk that leaving it up to the individual
doctor to decide who needed heroin might lead to trouble. The
biggest category of morphinists in the world, Lewin claimed, were
doctors; and there were ninety doctors among Britain's 300 known
heroin addicts in the early 1950s. There were also a few who were
concerned only to increase their incomes. Reluctantly, the medical
profession had to agree to abrogate its members traditional right,
and confine the prescribing of heroin to designated clinics. The
expedient worked; the rise in the addiction rate was halted.
Why, then, was the British system not introduced in the United
States? Partly because it would have meant passing control to
the Department of Health and Welfare. It was Anslinger's boast
that he blocked this proposal, because he preferred to work in
liaison with the Coast Guard, the Customs, the Secret Service
and the Department of Justice. When it was pointed out to him
that control by the Department of Health in Britain had largely
made it unnecessary for the Coast Guard, the Customs, the Secret
Service and the Department of Justice to concern themselves with
the heroin traffic, he insinuated that the British must be hiding
the real addiction figures. Anyway, he added, Britain was a small
island, which made it easier to prevent smuggling.
This was an unfortunate choice of argument, because it revealed
why his policies had been foredoomed to failurethe smuggling
of heroin into the United States could not be prevented. Neither
stricter enforcement nor severer penalties were reducing it. Any
standard textbook on drugs showed why. Many heroin takers acquired
'tolerance', needing larger amounts to enjoy the same effects.
The more they took, the more difficult it was to stop taking the
drug, because of the agonising nature of the withdrawal symptomseven
worse with heroin than with the other opiates: yawning, restlessness,
irritability, tremor, insomnia, depression, nausea, vomiting,
intestinal spasm, diarrhea, chilliness alternating with sweatiness,
gooseflesh, cramps, pains in the bones, muscle spasms. While undergoing
these tortures, the addict knewas a textbook listing them put
itthat 'at any point in the course of withdrawal, the administration
of a suitable narcotic will completely and dramatically suppress
the symptoms'. To purchase this relief, he would pay any price,
and risk any penalty. As a result, heroin became a profitable
enough commodity for the traffickers to be able to afford to conduct
their smuggling operations on a highly organised and efficient
The blackest irony
So, by a savage paradox, the more determined the campaign by the
United States Government to stamp out the drug traffic, the better
it suited the traffickers. By the late 1960s, it was possible
for a syndicate to offer $35 a kilo for raw opiumenough to
ensure an abundant supply from impoverished peasants in Eastern
and Middle Eastern countries, and to encourage them to cultivate
land which had not been tilled before. The heroin manufactured
from that kilo could be sold for $20,000; sometimes considerably
more. Out of so spectacular a profit rate, the syndicate were
able to afford to perfect their chain of operations so that at
each stage, the carriers of the heroin could not betray the man
who had consigned it to them, because they would not know who
he was: nor could they be betrayed by the man they handed it over
too, except through carelessness or bad management (a technique
which Timothy Green likened in his study of smuggling to a system
of electrical fuses so arranged that if one blew it could be replaced,
and the rest could continue to function normally). The larger
the difference between cost price and selling price, too, the
better the syndicates were able to afford to bribe Customs Officers
and policemen, and the greater the incentive for the 'pusher'
to extend his market by attracting new customers. And they were
thrown into his path by the Vietnam war, which introduced tens
of thousands of G.I.s to heroin. In Vietnam they could buy the
pure product at one-twentieth of its cost back home, where it
was often heavily adulterated. What happenedas described by
Frances Fitzgerald in her Fire in the Lakereads like
mimicry of what had happened to so many earlier efforts at prohibition.
The traffic in heroin was the final and perhaps the blackest irony
of the war. The heroin came largely from Burma and Laos. Much
of it was processed in or near Vientiane by those people for whose
sake (it was to be supposed) the U.S. Government was demolishing
the rest of Laos. It came to Vietnam either by air drop from Vietnamese
or Lao military planes, paid for by the U.S. Government, or through
the Customs at Tan Son Hut airfield. The Vietnamese Customs Inspectors
earned several dozen times as much for not inspecting the bags
and bundles as for inspecting them. When the American Customs
advisers attempted to crack down on their 'counterparts', they
discovered that the two key customs posts were held by the brothers
of Thieu's Premier... As this 'freely elected Government' would
not prosecute the Customs Officials (heroin, the Vietnamese said,
was 'an American problem'), the heroin continued to enter the
country unimpeded. Once in Vietnam it was sold openly in the streets
and around the American bases by young war widows and children
orphaned by the American War.
The United States might leave VietnamFrances Fitzgerald remarkedbut
the Vietnam war would never leave the United States; 'the soldiers
would bring it back with them like an addiction'. They did. The
demand for heroin continued to rise until, as Frederick Forsyth
unkindly noted in a survey of the heroin traffic in 1973, it became
'America's largest single consumer import', worth $4,000,000,000
The fact that the prohibition policy led to an increase in drug-taking,
though, was less demoralising than its social side-effects; particularly
crimes of violence. This was not because drugs unleashed criminal
tendencies, as Anslinger had claimed; the criminal activity was
largely the result not of the drugs, but of the prohibition policy.
As the Le Dain Committee of enquiry into drug use in Canada put
it, in their interim report,
Because of the illegal nature of the drug the cost of a heavy
heroin habit may run anywhere from $ 15.00 to $50.00 a day and
higher, in spite of the fact that the medical cost of the drugs
involved would be just a few cents. There are very few legitimate
ways in which most individuals can afford to meet that kind of
expense. Consequently, when tolerance pushes the cost of drug
use above what the user can afford legitimately, he is forced
into a decisioneither to quit the drug and go through withdrawal,
or turn to easier, criminal, methods of acquiring the necessary
In 1972 the New York Health Department estimated that there were
around 400,000 heroin addicts in the city; 15,000 of them in jails,
25,000 under treatment, the rest on the streetswhere, according
to the police commissioner Patrick Murphy, they were connected
with seventy per cent of the city's crimes. In Washington that
year, the city's Narcotics Treatment Organisation put the count
of heroin addicts at 15,000; its head, Dr. Robert du Pont, estimated
that 'the annual value of property and services transferred because
of addiction, through robbery, theft, prostitution, drug sales
and so on, was $328,000,000.' And at the same time, prohibition
was creating new criminals out of men and women who would not
ordinarily have become law breakersas the Le Dain Committee
noted in its final report in 1973. The fact of a drug being unobtainable
legally 'will often drive a person to seek support and reinforcement
in a deviant or criminal sub-culture'; and a prison sentence tended
to reinforce this bond, because there was 'a considerable circulation
of drugs within penal institutions'.
With heroin, as with marihuana, enforcement officials were ready
with what appeared to be evidence that they were doing their jobfigures
showing that they were improving the interception rate. The U.N.
narcotics committee were told that seizures of heroin in the United
States were up from 160 kg in 1969, to 221 kg in 1970. But in
the same period, the United States narcotic authorities' own estimates
for the illicit import of heroin, assuming they were correct,
showed that the proportion which was being seized had actually
fallen. And there was sufficient evidence of the involvement of
Customs and police by 1966 to lead John M. Murtagh, a judge of
the New York Criminal Court, to comment that the narcotics law
'corrupts more than it corrects'; a warning borne out three years
later when, within twelve months, no fewer than thirty-nine New
York narcotics agents who were under investigation for drug offences
Control at source
Although the attempt to stop drugs coming into the United States
was not succeeding, there were hopes for a time that it might
be possible to introduce an alternative method of control. In
1959 an American fact-finding mission was despatched to visit
the countries of the Near East to investigate the drug traffic.
It reported that the chief source of illicit heroin were the Turkish
poppy fields. The opium was being smuggled through the Lebanon
to Italy and France, where it was converted into heroin and exported
to the United States. There was little prospect of interception,
as the people involved were untouchables; the Mafia, in Italy,
and unknown but evidently influential figures in France. But why
wait until the opium was on its way? Why not cut off the supply
at its sources?
The idea had the attraction of simplicity. The United States Government
was paying huge sums annually in a futile effort to beat the smugglers;
part of the expenditure could be diverted, in the form of aid,
to induce the Governments of the countries where the poppyor
any other drug-producing plantwas cultivated, to prevent cultivators
from growing crops to supply the illicit market. The problem would
then solve itself, for there would be no raw material for the
traffickers to work on. All that was needed was some new international
agreement, of the kind that had been mooted in the old League
days, but which the U.N. should be better able to enforce. Anslinger
had himself appointed as the United States delegate to the U.N.
Commission to promote the policy, and in 1961 agreement was reached
on what became known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
It proved to be as unworkable as the Hague and Geneva conventions,
and for the same reasons; chief among them, the fact that some
of the nations involved had promised more than they could perform,
and others had never any intention of implementing their pledges.
Typical of the unreality was the Convention's decision that 'the
use of cannabis (hemp) for other than medical and scientific purposes
must be discontinued as soon as possible, but in any case within
twenty-five years'; a 'rather optimistic time-table', as Dr. Norman
TaylorCurator of the New York Botanical Gardens, and author
of a couple of refreshingly sane books on drugsremarked, when
'matched against three thousand years of use by untold millions'.
Taylor's scepticism was justified. Visiting Morocco eleven years
later, a Guardian correspondent found that though the Government
had pledged its support to the campaign to phase out kif,
it had carefully refrained from interfering with the cultivation
of hemp. The farmers were earning twice as much from it as they
had earned from growing corn; so, as a tribesman explained, 'now
we've all switched'.
The attempt to deprive the heroin traffickers of their main source,
the poppy fields of Turkey, also failed. Tempted by the promise
of American aid, the Turkish Government agreed to try to stop
poppy cultivation for the black market; and for a while the production
of opium was restricted. But as the illicit marketeers were able
to offer higher prices, this only meant that it was the supply
of legitimatemedicalopium which dwindled. By 1972 some nations
were running short; the Japanese representative complained at
the U.N. that his country could only get half its legitimate requirements.
At the same time the Turkish peasants, who had been instructed
to stop growing poppies, were becoming restive. The payments they
had received out of the American funds, they felt, were insufficient
to compensate them for the loss of so lucrative a crop. As their
votes were at stake, the Turkish Minister for Agriculture in the
Ecevit Government began, in 1974, to dismantle the controls his
predecessors had introduced.